January 14th, 2014

And The New Yorker Annoys Me Again...

Rebecca Mead's article, "Written Off: Jennifer Weiner's quest for literary respect," started bugging me almost from the beginning.  Mead introduces us to Weiner by telling us she's a best-selling writer, "a witty public speaker," "pretty and polished," the author of "chick-lit" novels.  The words "chick-lit" come from a web site, letting Mead distance herself from them, but they're also a way of getting that description out there right away, in the first sentence of the second paragraph.  And, let's face it, it's a pretty derogatory term; chick-lit novels are not even in the same universe of books that get "literary respect."  And do articles about literary figures, especially about male writers, devote as much time to a physical description of the subject?  Do we really need to know when Weiner put on her makeup before she gave a speech?  (Before dawn, if you're wondering.)

Weiner is on a mission to show that critics treat male and female authors differently, that women get reviewed less often in important literary journals and get fewer literary prizes.  One of the ways she gets this information out there is through her blog and Twitter.  Or, as Mead puts it, "Social media have given Weiner a parallel notoriety, as an unlikely feminist enforcer."

Stop and think about that phrase for a moment.  Why "unlikely"?  Weiner's a woman, she's a writer -- what other qualifications does she need?  Why "notoriety"?  But the word that really jumps out is "enforcer."  Does Weiner have an army of feminists at her beck and call, ready to take down any male critic who steps out of line?  Weiner is simply pointing out an inequality, and trying to change it.  Wouldn't something like "advocate" be a better choice?

Mead goes on to talk about Weiner's feuds with other writers: Jonathan Franzen, a writer named Claire Messud, then about writers and critics who think her "purpose in such debates is less to champion the writing of women than to champion the work of Jennifer Weiner."  Fair enough: there will always be people who won't want to hear the facts and will instead attack the messenger, and an article should probably present both sides.  And certainly this might be part of Weiner's reason for speaking out, though she seems sincere enough in her agenda.

Then comes the sentence that nearly made me hurl the magazine across the room.  "Weiner's provocations, though, have arguably helped her career, giving her a voice in cultural conversations that her books alone might not have granted her."  Her books aren't really literature, see.  They're about women, and mushy things like romance.  They have likable heroines and happy endings, and, Mead goes on to say, "it is unlikely that literary critics will ever applaud Weiner's work for these qualities, because literary criticism, at its best, seeks to elucidate the complex, not to catalogue the familiar." (Translation: We're The New Yorker, and we get to say who belongs and who doesn't.)

You know, it's amazing (and deeply disheartening) that a book written in 1983, Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, is still relevant thirty years later.  In it, Russ lists the many excuses critics can give for dismissing women's writing -- and here it is, right on cue: "She wrote it, but she really isn't an artist, and it isn't really art."

But okay, let's say that Weiner's novels aren't "good," in the sense that literary critics define that term.  (I haven't read them.)  Why on earth, then, if you're going to raise the problem of women getting reviewed less often than men, would you pick someone who isn't ever going to get reviewed seriously, someone who, even if she was a male writer, would never get the kind of attention Jonathan Franzen does?  (Though I don't know why Jonathan Franzen gets all that attention, but that's another story.)  It makes it look as if Weiner's complaint is trivial,  as if, yes, she's just doing it for attention.  It dismisses her whole point, makes it seem contrived, personal.  Why, if you're going to raise the subject of inequality in the first place, wouldn't you pick a woman writer who can get reviewed in rarefied literary journals but who hasn't been, someone who illustrates Weiner's criticism better than Weiner herself?  It's not as if they aren't out there -- Carol Emshwiller, Catherynne Valente, Kij Johnson… and that's just off the top of my head.

The article makes The New Yorker seem more interested in gatekeeping than in addressing this problem.  Why, Mead seems to ask at the end, should anyone who deals in "literature" pay attention to Jennifer Weiner?